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Postcard From Bloomington | The Nation

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Postcard From Bloomington

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Bloomington, Indiana

About the Author

Jason Vest
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.

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This comfortable college town is defined as much by its eclecticism as its traditional Midwestern quintessence. The cultural landscape here embraces basketball, Buddhist monasteries, folk music and an impressive array of ethnic restaurants that reflect the 3,300-strong international student presence. The threat of terrorist attacks or presence of Al Qaeda cells seems remote, if not ridiculous.

But when a small, unmarked single-prop Cessna 182 began circling over parts of town with persistent regularity last week, for some citizens, curiosity began to gradually give way to concern, given the "Orange Alert" status the Department of Homeland Security had prescribed for the country.

At first, local waiter Andrew Stevens was merely annoyed that the low-flying plane was interrupting his reading of Greg Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. But after stepping outside and watching the plane circle repeatedly, his concern mounted. "I kept thinking about all the talk about using small planes or crop dusters to spray chemical or biological weapons--I'd been watching way too much news lately--and at that point I decided to call the local airport control tower," he said. "The guy at the tower told me it was 'cool,' that it wasn't a civilian aircraft. I said, 'Well, that must mean it's a government aircraft,' and he said 'It is--but that's all I can say.'"

Stevens was initially satisfied, but as the plane continued to be a constant presence in the coming days, his patience waned, and he went to the local paper. By this time, the paper--along with the local police and sheriff's departments--were fielding scores of calls ranging from curious to panicked. The paper's inquiries with government agencies yielded little, except denials from the FBI of any "electronic surveillance," but acknowledgment from the Federal Aviation Administration that the agency was "privy" to reasons for the flights.

On the heels of the paper's cryptic story, the Indianapolis FBI office chose to reveal to the paper that the plane was theirs, and was conducting "non-electronic visual surveillance of individuals, vehicles and gathering places such as businesses." FBI sources confirmed the operation to the The Nation, adding that many under surveillance are "foreign nationals"--likely Indiana University students or faculty--and indicated that the plane was focusing on visits made by subjects to university building and copy shops where Internet and fax access is available.

In light of these disclosures, not everyone here is sure if they should trust the FBI's assertion that there's no evidence of terrorist-cell activity or terrorist threat to Bloomington--or if they should trust in the FBI's ability to not go overboard in situations where there may be little basis for investigation. "If they're doing something that will ultimately protect the citizens here, I don't have a problem," said Mayor John Fernandez. "But I'd really like to know what the nature of those flights is in terms of what they think they're accomplishing and what they're looking for. They sure haven't told me. But, then, the Feds didn't tell us about going to Orange Alert, either. We watched it on CNN hours before we got any official notification."

Amr Sabry, an IU professor and director of the local Islamic Center, said a colleague recently told him he spotted an unmarked vehicle picking up the center's trash. "I don't know what they're hoping to find or get, but I do feel sorry for the guys who have to do it and waste time and money doing that sort of stuff," he said.

When asked what he made of the FBI's low-flying aerial operation, a senior local law enforcement official noted that an FBI agent was recently arrested in Bloomington after he crashed his car while driving drunk. "I guess those FBI boys fly," he said, "about as well as they drive."

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